"You are the controller." It sounds so simple, so friendly, so patently cool. Take an Xbox 360, plug in the new $150 Kinect motion-sensing camera, devote a few minutes to waving your arms around like a traffic controller, and you're gaming without a gamepad. It's a little disorienting at first, like stepping onto a balance beam for the first time, and Kinect's imprecise, casual approach won't be for everyone, least of all Wii and PlayStation Move fans used to tactile wands and accurate controls. But as a second shot at bringing full body interactivity to the masses (the first was Sony's EyeToy, unless we're counting The Clapper) Kinect gets more right than wrong.
Salute, Duck, Jump
Even if you've fiddled with Nintendo's Wii or Sony's PlayStation Move, Kinect tends to throw you. Instead of wielding gamepads and remotes or wands and gun props you use your entire body as a kind of semaphore, a limb-and-torso command center scanned and translated courtesy Kinect's high-resolution cameras. Extend your arms one way to conjure the pause menu. Hold your hand out as if giving a Roman salute, then move it around to manipulate an onscreen pointer. Actually duck to duck, turn around to turn around, and jump to jump. Speak a couple words to bring up a navigational hub and access games and Kinect-enhanced applications. Act naturally, in other words, and for the most part, Kinect can tell what you're up to.
The trouble is, sometimes it can't. Kinect tends to process slow or exaggerated gestures without a problem, but badly garbles fast or subtle ones. Whether the problem's caused by lag, an algorithmic limitation, or insufficient processing power, it translates as moments where Kinect seems to misread or outright ignore you in ways Nintendo and Sony's systems don't. Sometimes you'll pull off a move in a game when it's clear you goofed, or fail when you should have succeeded, and the sensor often overplays a small gesture or underplays an exaggerated one. Perhaps because of these problems, Kinect's games tend to be forgiving by design, which has its demographic flip side: Gaming with Kinect is pretty much "casual" or bust.
Out of the Box
Setting up Kinect couldn't be simpler. The cameras reside in a tube of glossy black plastic about the size of a paper towel tube, attached to a motorized stand that you position facing you two to six feet off the floor above or below your TV screen. Kinect draws power directly from newer slimline Xbox 360s by plugging into a special orange-colored USB port. If you have an older model, you'll plug the sensor into one of the Xbox 360's standard USB ports and power it using a wall adapter included in the box.
From here, you'll run through a few exercises to fine tune sensor placement, speech recognition, and determine your play space's dimensions. Speaking of, prepare to move tables, couches, and chairs around, because Kinect's a room hog, requiring more square footage than either the Wii or PlayStation Move. You'll need to stand at least six feet from the sensor for solo play or eight for two-player, and that's not counting side-to-side space. Player height matters as well, and you have to be at least a meter tall for the sensor to function properly.
But once that's done, you're in business, and your Xbox 360 starts to make a groovy Wii-like sound.
Talk To the Hand
At this point you're still using the gamepad to navigate the Xbox 360's standard menus, but you'll notice a black and white picture-in-picture window in the screen's lower-right corner. That's the sensor's depiction of your play-space along with a shimmering, avatar-like version of you. When Kinect "sees" you, your avatar's hands glow, as if preparing to cast a spell.
Waving one hand back and forth in front of the sensor and you'll bring up Kinect Hub, the interface control center for the sensor. Once you do, the Hub slides into view and assumes command. You can alternatively bring up the Hub with a voice command by saying "XBOX," which slips a black bar up from the screen bottom and presents a list of command options. Say "KINECT" from here and the hub springs to life.
From here, your hand operates like the tip of wand, and moving it over a selectable button, panel, or icon causes a ring to appear and slowly fill like a clock. Hold your hand still and once the timer ring completes, your selection launches. Move it away and the timer ring stops. Arrow buttons at either side of the screen let you navigate left or right, and as the pointer nears one, the interface performs a magnetic "snap-to" trick facilitating faster selection. Once selected, you simply flick your hand in the desired direction to flip the screen left or right. You'll sometimes snag on these "snap-to" buttons, however, and unintentionally flip the screen when you jerk your hand away.
Another problem with the interface involves using your hand to summon and keep the pointer in Kinect's "zone of recognition," which only extends invisibly some two feet wide by two feet high. Sit down, or move out of the sensor's detection zone and the pointer disappears, requiring you stand and wave to bring it back. Once the pointer appears, it takes several seconds more hunting for the "zone" to calibrate to your hand. In other words, it takes more practice than you'd expect to get good at waking Kinect up quickly and moving the pointer around confidently.
Owner of a Lonely Hub
As you do, you'll notice there's not much to see in the Hub. You can fiddle with your Kinect ID, view friends, check game achievements, and dress your avatar--all stuff you can already do with a gamepad quicker and more accurately. You can also launch Kinect games, sign into or out of Xbox Live, view video trailers, or bring up a few Kinect-enabled apps. Of these, the new ESPN channel and Zune music service offer the most promise, allowing you to shuffle through music and movie selections with your hands almost like Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report.
Better still, you can do any of the above using simple voice commands. Say "XBOX" and "PLAY MUSIC" to launch a song, or "XBOX" and "PAUSE" to halt a video. Kinect's voice recognition works almost perfectly, and only fails if you speak too softly. If there's a downside, it's that the recognition algorithms can't be trained to your voice, allowing anyone in the room to sound off and interrupt what you're doing. It's a shame there's no "XBOX OFF" command, but for now, it's probably a blessing.
But if you're wondering what else you'll do with Kinect aside from gaming, you'll have to wait for whatever else is in the offing, or for obvious third-parties like Netflix to come around. Even a few existing Hub apps come half-baked, kicking you out of the Hub altogether when selected and requiring you pick back up your gamepad and tap along. There's still considerable disparity between which parts of the Xbox 360's interface belong to Kinect and which ones don't, in other words.
Everybody Was Party Gaming
Play through Kinect's launch games lineup and it's clear Microsoft's less after serious gamers than families and groups of friends who'll probably break out the system during parties or holidays. Imagine players laughing, joking, and generally caring less about perfecting a score than the experience of playing (or spectating) unencumbered by wires or controllers.
That's the sort of experience you'll have if you play the sensor's pack-in game Kinect Adventures, for instance, which offers over a dozen clever mini-game riffs on the standard "sports activities" theme but suffers from systemic motion-tracking vagueness. Or take Kinect Sports, which includes classics like boxing and bowling but shares Kinect Adventures' fuzzy tracking, making serious competition clumsy at best. Joy Ride, a stunt-angled racing game that reads torso shifts and arm thrusts to trigger flips and speed boosts probably fares best in terms of matching body input to gameplay output, but still feels like a step or two backwards contrasted with the precision of a gamepad or steering wheel controller.
The most promising application isn't even a game, technically speaking. Your Shape: Fitness Evolved scans in your body, dishes out activities ranging from yoga to martial arts and tai chi, then keeps an eye on everything from your fitness regimen to form. That, and Kinectimals--a ridiculously charming children's game in which you befriend behaviorally sophisticated lions, cheetahs, bengal tigers, panthers, and leopards--herald the real future of the technology.
Flawed Execution, Untapped Potential
Of course the question all this raises is why anyone would want to wave their hands around and take twice as long to do what they already can - with greater accuracy and speed - using a gamepad or remote control. The answer is they wouldn't. For show, yes, or spectacle at a party or family gathering, but for practical, everyday gaming, Kinect comes across as a wonderful idea with tremendous potential, but one that's still in need of a smarter interface and better controls.